Why Music Education Actually Matters

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This article was first published in Trust Me, I’m a Scientist on February 4th, 2014.

We favor the inclusion of music in the curriculum on an equality with other basic subjects. We believe that with the growing complexity of civilization, more attention must be given to the arts, and that music offers possibilities as yet but partially realized for developing an appreciation of the finer things of life.
—First Resolution of the Dallas Meeting of The Department of Superintendence, 1927

Image courtesy of Flickr user woodleywonderworks.

Image courtesy of Flickr user woodleywonderworks

Public music education has seen better days.

In 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act identified music as a ‘core subject’—just not one worthy of testing. This meant that schools struggling to improve math and reading scores in order to retain funding found that their arts programs were the easiest ones to divert resources from, or to cut altogether.

A 2012 report from the U.S Department of Education optimistically declared that “In the 2009-10 school year, music education was almost universally available in the nation’s public elementary schools”. But buried in that DOE report were huge differences in the availability of music education between large and small schools, as well as significant percentages of teachers who rated their time and resources as either “not at all adequate” or “minimally adequate”.

Lara Pellegrinelli of NPR writes of the report: “Even if one simply uses the DOE’s enrollment numbers to calculate the number of students in schools without music instruction at all, that’s over 2.1 million children across the country — likely a conservative estimate.”

This alone is enough to make most music lovers shake their heads, but there remains a central question that is often ignored in these stories and studies: “Why?” As in: “Why do we need music education anyway?”

There are some organizations that try to answer this. One video produced by VH1’s Save the Music Foundation features adults speaking about music education in grand and sentimental terms. But blink and you’ll miss the children providing concrete reasons why music improves their lives:

Music is challenging.”

With an instrument, you have to be very focused, and that’s the same with schoolwork.

Drums just make me concentrate.

There is science to support what these kids are saying, but that’s not usually the story we lead with in our crusades to save public music education.

Words like “passion” and “soul” may make for more fun and satisfying copy, but if lawmakers and educators are looking for facts and figures, perhaps we should just tell them the truth:

That in order to improve the reading, science, and math skills of American children, and to improve their overall chances in life, we should be providing them with more music education, not less of it.

Trust Him, He’s a (actual) Scientist

Thomas Südhof won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Thomas Südhof won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

To earn the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology, you have got to have some great teachers along the way. In an interview with The Lancet, 2010 co-recipient of the award, Thomas Südhof, named his most influential teacher:

“My bassoon teacher, Herbert Tauscher, who taught me that the only way to do something right is to practice and listen and practice and listen, hours, and hours, and hours.”

Südhof later elaborated in an interview for The International Double Reed Society’s own quarterly magazine:

“[I learned ] the value of disciplined study, or repetitive learning, for creativity. You cannot be creative on a bassoon if you don’t know it inside out, and you cannot be creative in science if you don’t have a deep knowledge of the detailsI learned to value traditions as a musician, but at the same time the importance of trying to transcend tradition. The tradition is the basis that allows you to progress, the starting point, but it cannot become a limitation, because then both in music and in science creativity and progress end.”

So what’s the science behind the scientist’s claims?

“A number of studies support the contention that students who participate in formal music education have higher academic achievement scores than students who do not participate in formal music education.”

This quote comes from a paper titled The Impact of Music Education on Academic Achievement by Donald A. Hodges and Debra S. O’Connell of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In it, Hodges and O’Connell reference no fewer than 14 supporting studies before they delve more deeply into some individual examples. Such as:

A two-year study by Gardiner et al. (1996) investigated the effects of a music and visual-arts curriculum on the academic achievement of first-graders. Students who participated in the arts curriculum had test scores below those of the non-arts curriculum students at the beginning of the school year; however, after seven months the arts curriculum students had higher scores on mathematics achievement. After a second year of treatment, the arts-curriculum students continued to have higher mathematics achievement scores.”


Whitehead (2001) examined the effect of music instruction…on math scores of middle and high school students. Subjects were randomly placed into three groups: full treatment (which received music instruction for 50 minutes five times per week), limited treatment (which received 50 minutes of instruction once a week), and no treatment (which received no music instruction). After twenty weeks, the full treatment group showed a higher level of significant gain in mathematics than the other two groups. The limited treatment group showed limited mathematics improvement and the no treatment group had the lowest gain in mathematics improvement.”

By さかおり (Myself) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Yamanashi Gakuin Elementary School in Japan

In a 1999 bulletin for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, James R. Ponter makes the same connection.

Citing a 1988 study of 17 countries for the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, Ponter singles out the 3 best-performing nations—Japan, The Netherlands, and Hungary—for their emphasis on musical education. He notes that in each country, music education is not only offered at an early age, it is mandated by the state.

With this in mind, it’s ironic that so many American school administrators see music programs as dead weight that divert from their focus on raising test scores, when increasing their emphasis on music education might have led to the desired result instead.

We could debate the value of narrow, standards-based education until the fat lady sings, but what if it turned out that learning music actually makes students better at passing math and reading tests?

Music Study Improves General Cognition

Research suggests that music training exercises so many different functions within the brain, that it’s kind of hard to engage with it fully and stay dumb for very long.

When a musician first learns to read music, she develops a process of recognizing and decoding a complex system of symbols. The musician then translates those symbols into appropriate motor actions that use both hands, and confirms the accuracy of her actions through multisensory feedback (both sight and sound). In addition, musicians practice motor skills in the pursuit of metric precision, they exercise memory functions in the absence of written music, and create new combinations on the fly through improvisation.

To its credit, The VH1 Save the Music Foundation website does contain several pages of citations of academic papers, articles on current research, and quotes from medical professionals that suggest music improves brain function and cognition (Don’t bury the lead, people!)

A sample quote from John J. Ratey, MD’s A User’s Guide to the Brain:

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